Siem Reap Swings –>
Siem Reap may be synonymous with the centuries old Angkor ruins, but there’s much more to this Cambodian city than crumbling temples. From understated Khmer cuisine to fine apsara dancing, Siem Reap’s cultural renaissance is in full swing. Siem Reap Swings!
There’s no denying the allure of Angkor, the ancient seat of the Khmer Empire. The archaeological ruins date back to the ninth century and in their heyday, the temples or Wats in Khmer, numbered more than 1,000 and supported a civilisation of some one million people. Today the crowded complex sees some 3.6 million visitors every year, with many temple tourists descending on Siem Reap for a day of sightseeing, departing the northern Cambodian city with little appreciation for the rest of the sights – far-flung, and much better preserved temples, arts and crafts, cuisine. We visit Angkor, but linger in Siem Reap for its increasingly sophisticated, and always enchanting, cultural offerings.
Elegant and harmonious Khmer cooking is one of the world’s most nuanced cuisines. The emphasis is on fresh, local and ecologically grown ingredients, an approach strongly promoted in restaurants across Siem Reap including the newest outlet from celebrity chef Luu Meng. Building on the success of his applauded Malis eatery in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, Meng’s new Malis opening in September in Siem Reap will be a must-visit. The chef – who has worked alongside Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain over the years – travels to the countryside on a regular basis to source ingredients for his menu, which might include dishes such as grilled prahok (fermented fish) with kaffir lime, minced pork and lemongrass or num banh-chok somlor Khmer, a traditional noodle soup with river fish and fresh vegetables.
For a more hands-on culinary experience, a number of cooking school offer classes in the preparation of classic Khmer dishes. Among them are Cooks in Tuk Tuks, where you’ll catch a tuk tuk to a local market and shop for ingredients that you’ll later turn into dishes such as fish amok (a type of curry) and Le Tigre de Papier, a restaurant that also offers culinary classes. At the latter, you can peruse the restaurant’s menu and have the chef teach you to prepare the dish of your choice.
Arts and crafts
Many of Siem Reap’s artisans did not survive the Khmer Rouge and some of the city’s traditional skills were nearly lost as a result. But a renewed focus on reviving these arts has seen traditional industries flourish in workshops and studios across the city. A positive spinoff for tourists is that in many cases it is possible to visit workshops to see artisans learning and at work.
Master craftsmen and women at the Artisans d’Angkor workshops train around 120 apprentices each year in silk weaving, lacquering, silver plating, stone and wood carving. Indeed, so skilled are some of these workers that they are in demand for the restoration projects currently underway at Angkor and other temple complexes. Guests are welcome to tour the Artisans d’Angkor workshops and learn about the history of the place – established in 1999 to help young people find work in their home villages – before picking up delicate souvenirs to take home.
A free shuttle bus from the Artisans workshop runs to the Angkor Silk Farm just out of town, where you can see silkworm farming through harvesting and processing as well as ikat (a traditional dying technique) and silk weaving – you can even try your hand at the latter if you’re game.
Khmer pottery is also experiencing a renaissance and at the Khmer Ceramics Center and the Angkor Pottery Center you can watch artists at work. Both establishments produce plates, bowls and vases for the country’s top hotels, and pieces are increasingly being sold overseas as well.
Mekong Quilts is an NGO comprised of more than 300 women producing and selling quilts, bags, and other homewares through outlets in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Vietnam. After wages, all profits generated from the sale of the quilts are re-invested into the community for scholarships, agricultural training and development programs. Custom-made quilts can be ordered and shipped home.
Away from the workshops, Siem Reap is home to a handful of lively markets. Psar Chaa (the Old Market) is well stocked with souvenirs – brass Buddhas, silver trinkets, jewellery, wood carvings, paintings, rolls of silk… Psar Kandal, the Central Market, sells similar goods but is newer and a little quieter, while the Angkor Night Market is for those looking to escape the heat and shop for handicrafts and souvenirs after the sun goes down. The Angkor Handicraft Association’s Souvenir Market sells only handmade souvenirs from Siem Reap province.
The original creations of Romyda Keth, an internationally renowned Cambodian designer, can be found at the Raffles Grand d’Angkor hotel. Known for uniting stunning silks and Asian style with Parisian sensibility, Keth’s creations include bespoke dresses and bold jackets with impeccable tailoring. Haute couturier Eric Raisina, Madagascar-born and Paris trained is now based in Siem Reap, with designs inspired by the colours and textures of Cambodian silk. His fabulous designs are available from an outlet at the FCC Angkor Hotel. Siem Reap boutiques and specialty shops offer a range of unique fashion items, such as Smateria which sells designer bags made of recycled materials, Garden of Desire where one can buy exquisite silver jewelry by Cambodian designer/artist Ly Pisith, and Samatoa Silk Shop which offers made to measure garments in silk and a new fabric made from lotus fiber stems.
Internationally renowned photographer John McDermott, who has been photographing Angkor and the Asian region for 17 years, show cases his work in three galleries in Siem Reap. You’ll find limited edition prints, reproductions, posters and greeting cards on sale. The original gallery, featuring images of Angkor is located at the FCC complex along the riverfront. A second gallery is located in the Old Market area on The Passage and exhibits McDermott’s work along with rotating exhibitions of other artists. A third gallery has just opened at the legendary Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, and includes collections of exquisite Cambodian designed jewelry, hand-crafted ceramics and selected work by international photographers.
Many of Siem Reap’s hotels and businesses form partnerships with community projects to nurture local economic opportunities. A great example is the just-opened Park Hyatt’s Sew Project, which sees the hotel partnering with the Life and Hope Association to fund a sewing school. Hotel guests are given the opportunity to visit, participate and purchase products as well as contribute to the project through donations or specific skills. This is a rewarding way to meet Cambodians, spend an afternoon and learn a little of Khmer life.
Perfumes and scents
You’ll smell the Senteurs d’Angkor workshop before you see it – the company is responsible for producing some of Cambodia’s most well-known scents, made using natural products and local plants. Visitors can watch workers mould soaps, whip together lotions, press balms, bottle fragrant oils and package scented candles. On a much more tasty note, the workshop also produces spices such as Kampot pepper, lemongrass and chilli, as well as local coffee.
Similarly, KRU Khmer Botanical works with Cambodian farmers and artisans to produce natural herbal cosmetic products and traditional herbal medicines dating from the time of Angkor. Their workshops demonstrate the herbs and explain each of their uses. While you visit here take a relaxing herbal tea footbath to ease the aches of temple touring.
Siem Reap also offers a variety of unique performance experiences, both traditional and modern. The ancient and graceful apsara (“heavenly”) dance performances can be seen at a number of venues, often combined with a dinner. The Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor has hour long dinner dance shows on the Apsara Terrace on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, featuring traditional Khmer dance and martial arts performances. Alliance Café offers Shadow Puppet Theatre and Traditional Khmer Dance on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with dinner and show, or show only, while the Apsara Theatre and Temple Balcony restaurant have nightly dinner shows of Traditional Khmer dance.
The art of shadow puppetry is thought to date back to pre-Angkor times; today the craft of sbek po uses colourful leather puppets to recreate traditional stories and legends. A puppetry performance paired with apsara dancing and drumming can be seen at the La Noria guesthouse, with part of the proceeds going towards the education of local children.
The Phare Circus is a relatively new arrival in Siem Reap, with shows near the National Museum on most nights at 7.30 p.m. The hour-long performance is an energetic combination of modern dance, acrobatics and story telling, accompanied by a modern take on Khmer music – think Cirque de Soleil with a Khmer flavour. The performers train at the Phare Ponleu Selpak school of arts in Battambang, learning acrobatic skills in addition to daily classes.
Another insightful performance is the Beatocello concert and lecture on healthcare in Cambodia, presented by Dr. Beat Richner, an accomplished cellist and paediatrician. The concert is held every Thursday and Saturday at 7.15 p.m. at the Jayavarman VII Hospital. The event is free but donations are welcome.
Lake Tonle Sap, about 15 km south from Siem Reap, is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and boat tours can be arranged to visit the floating villages and stilted houses in and around the lake. The area is an important breeding ground for endangered water birds, with more than 150 species – including species of international significance such as the Spot billed Pelican, Milky Stork, Painted Stork, Lesser Adjutant, Greater Adjutant, Black headed Ibis, Oriental Darter, Grey-headed Fish Eagle and the secretive Masked Finfoot – calling the area home. At the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, visitors can enjoy guided boat tours with wildlife experts.
Siem Reap, Travel facts
Jetstar, Air Asia, Malaysia and fifteen other carriers offer flights from Australia and a range of Asian hubs direct to Siem Reap International Airport; jetstar.com, airasia.com; malaysiaairlines.com
When To Go
Siem Reap can be visited at any time of year and even during the rainy season the weather in Siem Reap is never so bad that it makes it impossible to visit and tour the Angkor temples. November through March are the mildest months and probably the best times to visit whilst June through October are the wet months which can also be milder. April and May can be very hot but dry and are also the months when travel is less congested.
Where To Stay
- Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, Khum Svay Dang Kum, Siem Reap +855-63 963 888, raffles.com/siem-reap
- Navutu Dream Resort and Spa, Siem Reap, +855-63 6880607, navutudreams.com
- Hyatt Siem Reap, Siem Reap, +855-63 21 1234, siemreap.park.hyatt.com
What To Do
- Angkor National Museum, +855-63 966 601, www.angkornationalmuseum.com
- Malis restaurants, +855-23 221 022, www.malis-restaurant.com
- Cooks in Tuk Tuks +855-63 963 400 www.therivergarden.info
- Le Tigre de Papier, +855-12 265 811, www.letigredepapier.com/en/cooking.php
- Artisans d’Angkor, +855-63 963 336, www.artisansdangkor.com
- Khmer Ceramics Center, +855-63 210 004, www.khmerceramics.com
- Angkor Pottery Center, +855-63 633 633 8 www.angkorpotterycenter.com
- Angkor Handicraft Association, +855-78 34 14 54, www.aha-kh.com
- Mekong Quilts, +855-63 964 498, www.mekong-quilts.org
- Eric Raisina, FCC Angkor Hotel, +855-63 963 208, www.ericraisina.com
- Romyda Keth, Ambre, Raffles Grand d’Angkor, +855-63 963 888, romydaketh.net
- Senteurs d’Angkor, +855- 63 963 830, www.senteursdangkor.com
- KRU Khmer Botanical, 012 232 215 (mob), https://www.facebook.com/krukhmer
- Garden of Desire, +855-1231 9116, www.gardenofdesire-asia.com/
- Samatoa Silk, +855 63 965 310, www.samatoa.com/
- Smateria, +855-63 964 343, www.smateria.com/en/1/home
- McDermott Galleries, +855 12 274274 (FCC), +855 92 66 818 (Old Market), +855-63 963 888 (Raffles), www.mcdermottgallery.com/
- Phare Circus, +855-15 499 480, pharecambodiancircus.org
- Beatocello concert and lecture, www.beat-richner.ch
- La Noria Hotel Puppet Show,+855-63 964 242, www.lanoriaangkor.com/
- Apsara Terrace, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, +855-63 963 561,raffles.com/siem-reap
Contact Tourism of Cambodia for comprehensive information on Siem Reap, travel trips and things to do, tourismcambodia.com/travelguides/provinces/siem-reap.htm